Tag Archives: Addiction

Parshat Bo (5775)


Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh here and should be worried if we find that we really do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this, those who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Chassidic Story: A Man With a Frightening Amount of Potential Within


The Story of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Chaim the Drunk

An ultra-Orthodox Jew lies on the ground drunk during celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Purim in a synagogue in Jerusalem

“Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

The Belzer Rebbe tells this story of the Baal Shem Tov – the first of the famed Chassidic masters. This story is about one couple who comes to the Rebbe – the grand-rabbi, for a blessing. It was a serious need for this couple, something related to wanting to have a child, or an income to support them; something quite serious, according to the various versions.

As the Baal Shem Tov would do, the story says, he looked into the people standing before him. Their personal attributes and their potential, while pondering the issues facing them. The story says he turns to them and says that there is nothing that he can do. Sure, he’s known as the man of miracles. But this time it’s beyond him.

So as this couple turns to walk away, the Baal Shem Tov notices just how dejected and distraught the husband is. So the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, tells him, “Even though there is nothing I can’t do this for you, I know of someone who can. Go two towns over, and in the back of a tavern you will find him. His name is the holy Reb Chaim. He can do this for you.”

Now this man doesn’t say it, but he thinks that the Rebbe has really lost it this time. Sure, Chassidim are known for doing ecstatic and curious things in one’s joyous expression to G-d. As people say, they are not unknown to stand on their head if needed! But this is not just some rapturous mystical thing the Rebbe has asking of him, or some pious sacred task. He asks him to go to a tavern – which is hardly the place for a gentleman – and in an area which is two towns over, to meet some unknown guy. And all he knows about this man is his name is Chaim.

Well, the man would have done anything the Rebbe asked anyhow, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t understand, but the Rebbe asked him to and so he’s going to do it.

So the chassid makes his way two towns over, and he walks into the tavern. He looks around for a while. And the only thing he really finds is a wild drunkard in the back of the tavern.

In frustration the chassid eventually asks the attendant behind the bar, “Where can I find the holy Chaim?”

The bar tender turns to him and says, “The ‘holy’ Chaim? Don’t know him. The only Chaim we have here is the drunk in the back, spilling beer on everyone.” And he points to the drunkard, who is rambunctiously boozing and throwing his drink about. Barely able to stand, barely able to speak.

So this chassid goes up to Chaim and says, “Reb Chaim, the Baal Shem Tov has sent me. He says I need a bracha (blessing) from you!”

Chaim responds by turning over the tables as he tries to stand, throwing all the booze about. This man Chaim falls on his face. Both this man Chaim and the situation were a mess. The chassid turns to walk away, once again deflated. Wondering why the Rebbe would send him here, to this man. He wonders, was all this just a wild goose chase?

As he turns to walk away he grabs hold of another man and ask again. This fellow confirms, “Yes, this is certainly the holy Reb Chaim.”

To which the chassid replies in shock, “But he’s so drunk!”

However, the fellow reassured him. “Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

So the chassid thinks it over, until he notices a big man hanging about. A huge guy, who looks like a bouncer. So he pays him off to subdue the drunken Chaim. They eventually strap Chaim to a chair and take to the task of sobering him up. They keep him away from alcohol. And for a day-and-a-half, they attend to this Chaim, feeding him bread and water.

After this much time passed he sobered up, and Reb Chaim become conscious. He then turns to the chassid and extends a blessing, “I give you a blessing of parnasa (income), I give you a blessing of children.” And the chassid goes on his way.

Now we are told this chassid did eventually receive his blessing just as it was told. Indeed, that very year the couple did conceive. And they raised their child well.

But having received his blessing, the chassid later returned to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov. And he asked the Rebbe, “Why is it that G-d placed such power in the hands of a drunkard?” He was very grateful for the blessings, but still confused by the experience.

The Rebbe turns to him and says, “Some people, if they recognized their light – if they truly recognize their strength – they would be too afraid of it.”

– – –

Before we end this story telling I want to say, this story speaks to me. As I believed it does to so many other people who have dealt with addiction, or love someone dealing with addiction.

For a moment I want us to consider how many people just look away though, how many people just walk away from it. They shake their heads and say, “This guy is so talented and has so much potential. How sad.” And that’s usually not just a polite observation. The truth is most addicts are very intelligent and talented people. They just don’t know what to do with all that pent-up potential. Or it’s so much more than they feel they can handle.

We are also taught by the chassidic masters:

“The biggest challenges are the blessings in our lives. What to do with the gifts, how to utilize them in service of G-d.”

The Kotzker Rebbe

This week’s lessons I very much want to dedicate to Daniel Ardel, my former-partner, for recently celebrating his second year of sobriety. I was so happy to celebrate with him once again, at Beit T’Shuvah. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the program for taking a chance on one of the most severe cases of drug addiction imaginable, and making room for the first Orange County case to be released from jail into their program.

Year Two Sobriety Beit T'Shuvah

Daniel (right) celebrating his second birthday; year two in recovery completed. And to believe, unlike Reb Chaim we didn’t have to tie him down to sober him up! 😉

Though this story is deeper than I can give you in such a short session, just know his story is intense. After coming out of the closet while in yeshiva (orthodox rabbinical academy) in Israel and facing so many conflicts inside himself, he later left religious life behind all together. And faced even more conflict in the spiritual void and cultural longing.

Together we later spent several years locked in addiction together, numbing ourselves for the same reasons. I broke free of addiction before him, and it was very hard watching his continued descent for many more years. Continuously asking him to seek out Beit T’Shuvah, the only program I heard of that I thought could help him face recovery on all levels. In jail the chaplain helped him get in contact, and they took him in. Today he is happy in recovery, seeking out spiritual thrills and busy as part of the program’s thrift store team!

One of the wonderful things about Beit T’Shuvah’s program is that they don’t just don’t detox people. They also deal with the soul and heart level issues. With a congregation that is certainly one of the most soulful shuls anywhere. As well as providing a variety of programs to engage a person and their talents. Art, music, drama, sports, social justice programs, urban farming, just to name a few. A program that works to help a person find their potential. And works with each person to be who they want to be. A wonderful program that people, Jewish or not, find inspiring.

Please support them and your local programs which provide support for those who suffer from addiction. There are people like ourselves, which need to also be liberated to face and actualize their potential.

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Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (2013)


Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

True Repentance Is Not About Being Sorry

This week’s double parsha is the last reading we have before we observe Rosh haShanah – the Jewish New Year. We consider it a day of justice and reckoning.

doggie shame

During this time of year a lot of people add New Year resolutions to their annual teshuvah (repentance) checklist. Many people choose to battle their addictions. But have you ever noticed how shamming and humiliating recovery programs can be sometimes? What does the Torah say about repentance and recovery?

As we come upon this season we begin to reflect and consider all the areas in our lives in which we need to make teshuvah – repentance, were we need to make the turn-around and take right fork in the road. This is a theme that has run through-out the entire month of Elul and the Days of Awe.

Normally people don’t really like to consider the topic of teshuvah. It can be intimidating to some, and even shamming to others who are not so religiously inclined. That is why I would like us to explore just how empowering this spirit of repentance can truly be.

First off, it would help if we demystify what teshuvah – what “repentance” – really is.

It is true that repentance does come with a sense of regret and remorse for what one has done. It can certainly mean to rethink the actions that we have done in the past. We have a specific word for that in the scriptures – nacheim (נחם), to change one’s wrong and calamitous mindset, to repent; interestingly it is generally a term that is only used to appeal to G-d’s higher nature in the chumash (the five books of Moses) itself. (see Exodus 32:12, where G-d is said to repent.)

Instead for people, throughout the Torah, the word used for repentance is much more plain; it is simply teshuvah – to return. This is something that is continuously mentioned through out this parsha. That is what we will explore today. What does “repentance” essentially mean when stripped down from all the religiously charged jargon and lingo?

I would like us to pick up at the top of the third reading, beginning with our second verse:

“And you will return

and listen to the voice of Hashem,

and fulfill all His commandments,

which I command you today.”

| Ve’atah tashuv

| veshamata bekol Hashem

| ve’asita et-kol-mitzvotav

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

Deuteronomy 30:8

One of the things that I find so interesting about the Torah is its optimism. Our previous readings for this parsha talk in detail about how people do go astray and end up regretting their wrongs from a place of distress. This is a reality of human nature. But the Torah isn’t just cynical, it responds to this with great optimism. It tell us “you will return.”

Our parsha begins with a promise that G-d will eventually deal with all our enemies and foes, and all who pursue us. (Deut. 30:7) It promises that after we return and we begin to fulfill the commandments of G-d, (v. 8) then G-d will bless us with all forms of abundance and fertility. G-d will rejoice over the good fortunes in our lives, just as G-d rejoiced over the successes of our forefathers. (v. 9) This will happen when we observe His mitzvot and statutes written in this Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), and return with all our heart and soul. (v. 10) Our Torah calls us to return to G-d not just with an emotional response, but also to respond with “kol nafshecha” – with all our living soul, our being, to deeply identify with this call to just and righteous living. Not just to feel repentant, but to live it out.

The truth is that teshuvah is done more with the hands and feet than it is with the eyes. It’s not simple reflection and shedding of tears, it’s about starting over and reconstructing the situation. Repentance is not about continuously being sorry.

The topic of teshuvah is one that I think is best understood by people who have dealt with addictions. Often times the world’s message about repentance and redemption is about groveling over what we have done, admitting we are powerless, and that something needs to save us. I believe a lot of the pain and stagnancy in the lives of people is caused by this message. It is reinforced by a culture in recovery groups to praise the “rock bottom.” The message is one of constantly being a helpless wretch in need of saving. Someone who just can’t do it in life, so they got to “let go and let G-d.”

Much of this attitude is reflective of the Protestant Christian mentality, which is pervasive in many recovery groups and the similar. Many are fully built on the idea of total depravity, of irredeemability (you are always an alcoholic), and the need of a higher power to help you along. This is a very humbling Christian concept that keeps those so inclined in-line, but it is not helpful for the Jewish soul.

The message of Christianity regarding this is clearly contrary to the message of the Torah. Christianity tells people that they need a vicarious atonement because they are incorrigible lawbreakers according to the Bible. That they are helpless and unable to redeem themselves, that’s why somebody else needs to do it for them. In fact they would claim that the mitzvot of the Torah are only given so that people would know what charges G-d has against them. That the laws and statutes of Torah are just intended to show people that they could never actually keep them.

The foolishness of such false humility is revealed to us by the simplicity of the Torah. It tells us why it charges us to start over again, to return to the mitzvot another time:

“For this commandment

which I command you today

is not concealed from you

nor is it far off.

It is not in the heavens

so that you say:

‘Who can go up to heaven

and bring it to us,

so that we can hear it and do it?’

It is not across the sea

so [that you should] say:

‘Who will cross over the sea

and bring it us,

so that we can hear and do it?’”

| Ki hamitzvah hazot

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

| lo-niflet hi mimecha

| velo-rechokah hi

| Lo vashamayim

| hi lemor

| mi ya’aleh-lanu hashamaymah

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

| Velo-me’ever layam

| hi lemor

| mi ya’avor-lanu el-ever hayam

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

Deueronomy 30:11

Our Torah does offer some profound answers for life, even if they are not as mystical as people would like them to be. The Torah does not call for any real epiphany, or the grasping of any particular mystery. The Torah is not a hidden truth, nor it is too hard to comprehend on ones own.

The Torah contends that we do not need any messengers to go up to heaven and bring down the truth for us. We don’t require someone to ascend to the heavens in order for us understand what G-d wants from us, and what we should do in this life! It’s not that hard to comprehend, as it speaks from the inside of us.

The Torah challenges us to recognize that we do not need exotic gurus and teachers, people in far-off and foreign places to deliver the answers of life to us. These truths are not so hidden and distant that someone needs to bring them back to us from afar. This truth is very close and easy to grasp.

The problem for many people who deal with the struggles of addiction, sin and their base desires is that they often want someone else to do it all for them. They rather be told what to do, rather than think for themselves. They rather consider sin and addiction a mere disease, that they just need G-d to cure or aid them through. They rather have someone else to rely upon – and blame – for the outcomes in their lives.

Our Torah teaches us something very different, by forcing us to take full responsibility. It contrasts the call of our G-d against the world view of those who prefer to build their spirituality completely around sages, shamans, all forms of novel religion, and even other people’s experiences. It stands against our complacency and self-pity. It empowers us with these words:

“Rather, this is something

that is very close to you;

[it is] in your mouth and in your heart

so that you can do it.”

| Ki karov eleycha

| hadavar me’od

| beficha uvilvavcha

| la’asoto

Deuteronomy 30:14

We need to protect our mindset from people who exaggerate a sense of helplessness, and that foster a mentality of inability that leads to dependence. People who encourage dependence on their program or religion, instead of re-empowering you for your own path. Our Torah stands against asking people to grovel in helplessness and shame. Instead of telling us what we are unworthy and incapable of on our own, the message of the Torah as revealed to Israel is, “You can do it!”

Rather than telling us what we can’t do and offering a list of commandments to convict us with guilt, the Torah lays out the mitzvot as a road map for how we can live a life of prosperity and success. It’s not hard to understand. It tells us that if we want this type of success all we really need to do is shuvreturn and try again – because we can do it!

Rehab and recovery programs that I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – (Venice Beach/Santa Monica) Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people rebuild a life after addiction.

  • Chabad Residential Treatment Center – (Los Angeles) Since 1972 thousands of men from every imaginable background have successfully received treatment at Chabad Rehabilitation Center, based on criteria established by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Washington DC.

  • The A.L.I.Y.A. Institute  – A Brooklyn Heights program that is specially geared for young adults from chassidish families but that that are out of yeshiva, that are dealing with homelessness and addiction issues. This program pairs a working beit midrash for individualized Torah learning half the day, with the structure the classroom for English and Math studies in preparation for the GED.

Parshat Shemini (2012)


Parshat Shemini (2012)
Leviticus 9:1-11:47

What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink

In this weeks parsha, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died after brining “aish zarah / strange fire” in their incense pans and placed it upon the altar. The scheme of the parasha like most of this book does not go in chronological order necessarily, but this incident hangs over the whole parsha. We aren’t exactly sure what this means.The sages gives us the opinions that either they arrogantly brought foreign corruption upon the sacred altar, others suggest that they were caught up in a form of fatal religious ecstasy. (see Leviticus 10:1-2)

Though we aren’t sure exactly for what reason they died, it was such a dramatic and heartbreaking loss on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle Sanctuary – that G-d changes directions. Up until now He speaks to Mosheh – to Moses – but now in compassion He reaches out to Aharon directly.

“And Hashem spoke to Aharon saying:

You shall not drink strong wine to intoxication,

nor your sons,

when you enter into the Ohel Moed [the Tent of Meeting]

so that you do not die.

This is an eternal statute throughout your generations.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Aharon lemor:

| Yayin veshechar al-tesht atah

| uvanelcha

| itach bevo’achem el-Ohel Mo’ed

| velo tamutu,

| chukat olam ledoroteichem.

Leviticus 10:8-9

Does that mean that one is not allowed to drink wine when on duty? Not necessarily. The key word here in our text here is veshechar – from the simple Hebrew word “shechar / to make one drunk.” Rashi citing the opinion of the Sifra says that this doesn’t mean just to drink alcoholic beverages; but to drink a lot, undiluted, and uninterrupted until it leads to intoxication. (Sifra/Torat Kohanim 10:35) Because the key point is intoxication Ibn Ezra and the Sadia Gaon say this also applies to any other intoxicant aside from wine as well.

Noticing that this comes just after Moses instructed Aharon regarding the proper practice of the priestly duties, and immediately after the instructions regarding ritual purity. (see Parshat Shemini-2011) If we look at the text it is not hard to understand that the prohibition against Temple service while intoxicated is to safeguard one from accidents that could result in death. This ritual service is powerful and needs to be taken on with solemness, intention and sobriety.

But it’s more than just that. The priests not only had to take into consideration their own ritual cleanliness, but also that of the people they were appointed to serve. Notice the Torah continues on by stating it this way:

“So that you will be able to distinguish

between holy and profane (or the common),

and between the ritually unclean and the pure.”

| Ulehavdil

| bein hakodesh uvein hachol

| uvein hatame uvein hatahor.

Leviticus 10:10

Though strictly speaking, like most of the laws of Leviticus, these were originally mostly intended to apply to the Levitical priests and sons of Aharon. The priests acted in many functions, their chief responsibilities were not just to ritual but also serving as the physicians. Peoples inflictions and infections would be examined and a course of action prescribed, then followed up with them to insure they were cured.

But the post-Temple world, in the absence of the Temple cult and the change of station regarding purity in this void (all of us being ritually unclean, because we don’t have the Temple there is no essential remedy nor application for cultic purity) our rabbis broadened these commandments and helped apply them to the everyday lives of the common Jew.

But for the rabbis, the teachers and legal chiefs of our people, they also took from it a very solemn personal understanding based on the continuing verse:

“To instruct [also render decisions]

the Children of Israel

in the statutes

that Hashem spoken unto you

from the hand of Moses”

| Ulehorot

| et-benei Yisrael

| et kol-hachukim

| asher diber Hashem aleihem

| beyad-Moshe.

Leviticus 10:11

The sanheidrin, the assembly of the people always existed since biblical times in some fashion. (see Parshat Shoftim 2011) But in the absence of an active priesthood many of the functions fell squarely on the shoulders of the scholars and sages – our rabbis. They began to instruct and became the only body of people to render decisions and instructions for us. They declared that we should understand this to mean that one should not lay down halachic decisions when intoxicated. The priests weren’t allowed, neither should we. Not that the position is the same, the level of severity for an intoxicated priest is seemingly great enough to demand the death penalty, but it is not so for a mere teacher from among the congregation of Israel. That does not mean that one’s intoxication might not lead to their death, but it doesn’t demand it either in the case of a scholar. (see Rashi for v.11)

But as we look over this text we can begin to see that safety is not the only key issue here. The other is that one is not able to give judgment on matters of good and bad, sacred and profane when impaired. How can one whose senses are numbed and is not of a clear mind be able to distinguish between the two? This reason of temperance to maintain responsibility is equally important. Rashi teaches us in his commentary for verse 10 that a priest who performs any type of service or work his deeds are “avodato pesulah / his service is invalid” when drunk. Not just invalid but pasul – meaning inappropriate.

Just because Torah nor Jewish Law demands exacting punishment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences when one gives in to debauchery. (see “When Redemption Turns Fatal: Atonement and the implications of premature death) But we cannot safeguard ourselves, nor be useful and appropriate when we do not have the clarity of mind to distinguish between good and bad.

Our tradition, where as it demands solemn sobriety of mind when it comes to our responsibilities, it does not demand that we become teetotalers. Halacha does not demand that we go dry and abstain. But it does step out of the normal narrative with G-d Himself speaking to an individual and asking him to warn for future generations of the dangers of losing ones sensibility to inebriation.

Wine is a very important part of our tradition, we make Kiddish on it because it is a symbol of joy and celebration for each Shabbat and holiday. We are just coming out of Pesach with the four large cups we drink. Alcohol is not something taboo or disapproved; in fact if anything it is prescribed. So much so that some people make issue with one certain holiday because in all Jewish communities we are accustomed to drinking significantly on it; it is on Purim, which we celebrated just a few short months ago. And it is ordinarily prescribed that we not just drink, but drink to full intoxication. This is not just some obscure tradition by any measure, it comes from the Talmud itself.

Let us look at this text because it also gives us some good historical background and a good lesson to learn about how to handle our drink when we are partying. The Mishnah states:

“Rava said: It is the duty of a man

to make himself bisumi

[intoxicated, lucid, mellow]

on Purim until

he doesn’t know the difference between

‘Cursed is Haman’ and

‘Blessed is Mordechi.'”

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש |

לבסומי |

|

בפוריא |

עד דלא ידע בין |

ארור המן |

לברוך מרדכי |

Mishnah, Megilah 7b

According to our tradition, we are told by the Mishnah, the highest and authoritative level of oral tradition and case law, that one is to become intoxicated and make revelry until he cannot distinguish the difference between the mention of the name of evil Haman and saintly Mordechi during the reading of Megillat Esther. We begin to enjoy ourselves and loosen up to the point that not even the mention of our foe can bring us down – its all good in our haze of liquid joy and communal celebration. We are encouraged to get caught up in the ecstasy.

Now historicallyy we should understand that wine in the biblical times was not just for celebration, it was also used for everyday table use as a regular drink like we would soda, tea or juice today at our dinner table. Water was often of such poor quality wine was safer to drink, and to avoid intoxication wine would be watered down. In this diluted and yet still acidic state the plain water would not be as harmful or foul-tasting. Not that all wine was made to be highly intoxicating to begin with.

In fact to reach intoxication often times fragrant spices (Heb. basamim) and other additives were loaded into wine and drinks. Even resins (such as from the balsam tree, see בלסם) were known to be utilized by the Greeks for causing elucidation and intoxication. Others uses myrrh and frankincense as well in the days of the Temple and rishonim. For this reason it makes sense that many of the sages interpret in our parsha the word yayin to mean “strong drink” and insist it does not merely mean wine. It is spiked wine made for intoxication, with the aim of unbridled tipsiness; or bisum in modern Hebrew.

Our rabbis and our own linguistic deduction shows us the same reasoning of the rabbis. We can see they are correct in their assertion that in our parasha’s use of the word v’shachar means “to the point of intoxication” is correct; that one should not run around shikur (Heb. drunk) all that time. We are to be cautious so that intoxication does not lead to a lack of reasoning and enviably our harm.

Yes our tradition allows us to embrace the ecstasy! But the Gemara gives us a warning to not get overwhelmed by it:

“Rava and Rabbi Zera

made their Purim feast

with one another.

They became drunk;

Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera.

The next day, he asked for mercy for him,

and his life was resuscitated.

The next year, he [Rava] said to him:

‘Let my Master come

and we shall make a Purim feast

with one another.’

He [Rabbi Zera] said to him:

‘Miracles don’t happen every single time.'”

רבה ורבי זירא |

עבדו סעודת פורים |

בהדי |

הדדי איבסום |

קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא |

למחר בעי רחמי |

ואחייה |

לשנה אמר ליה |

ניתי מר |

ונעביד סעודת פורים |

בהדי הדדי |

אמר ליה |

לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא |

Gemara, Megillah 7b

Some scholars contend this is just an allegory. Others who are more mystical take this completely literally. We see two rabbis celebrating Purim and are discharging their obligation to drink to intoxication and celebration. As they are drunk Rava takes out his shochet’s knife – a knife for kosher ritual slaughtering of animals for food – and slits the neck of his friends and companion Rabbi Zera. When Rava wakes up in the morning and realizes what he has done, as a learned man of medicine and as a tzaddik – a righteous and saintly man – he quickly acted. After praying for mercy for his companion, he was brought back to life.

As intense as this crisis is, in the end Rabbi Zera and all of us understand that he was intoxicated and not within his proper state of mind. He does not seem to be punished or held criminally accountable nor sued for negligence. And there is no bad blood between the rabbis even after this whole event. The love was still there, but that doesn’t mean he needed to go there again. Having adverted danger before, it was better to be on the safe side.

The Torah doesn’t demand that we avoid the drink, but it most certainly does insist that we avoid harmful situations; not relying on miracles or fate to rescue us.


When Redemption Turns Fatal



When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא, |

שלא הניח זונה |

אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה; |

פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת |

בכרכי הים, |

והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין |

בשכרה; |

נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה |

שבעה נהרות; |

בשעת הרגל |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |

|

אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]

accepted

but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |

|

שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.

Conclusion

As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.


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